Eric Cordingly – Diary of the Changi POW Chaplain in Singapore

Eric Cordingly was an army chaplain. He was a prisoner of war at the Changi POW camps in Singapore. The year was 1942.

Eric Cordingly was a chaplain with a territorial battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers during the Second World War. On 4 February 1942, Cordingly’s unit arrived in Singapore. Two weeks later, British forces lost the Battle of Singapore and surrendered to Japan.

My mother lived through the Japanese occupation in Singapore. She told me that when the Japanese invaded Singapore on the Chinese New Year day on the 15th of February in 1942, it ruined everyone’s dinner. My mother and her family ran away to a safer place and they were taken in by some Malay family for a few days.

Life of the civilians was turned upside down. Life of the POWs was unpredictable. You must have known that the treatment of the allied prisoners of war was extremely harsh as the Japanese nationalists ignored the Geneva Convention. It was in the bleak camps that the work of a padre was significant.

How’s the life of an army chaplain in the world’s infamous POWs prison? The answers are in this new book.

Down to Bedrock: The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East Prisoner of War Chaplain 1942 – 1945

Padre Eric Cordingly: Building a prison-camp parish

Padre Eric Cordingly: Building a prison-camp parish

Down to Bedrock: The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East Prisoner of War Chaplain 1942 – 1945 is the diary and secret notes of Eric Cordingly’s life in captivity as a prisoners of war chaplain. I’m lucky to have read the extracts of this eye-opening book of a Far East POW chaplain from the world’s leading Anglican newspaper Church Times. Since I started writing about Malaya recently, I’ve gained many new contacts and my loyal friend and reader Hazel Bateman told me about this inspiring article she read from the Church Times last week. She even dropped the newspaper off at my door.

To the Far East Prisoners of War (FEPOW), the “rush and hurry and noise of a working, fighting world” was over, and now in a quiet corner of the world, men became introspective. How long would their captivity last? No one knew.

A POW chaplain's memoirs: Eric Cordingly in Changi, Singapore

A POW chaplain’s memoirs: Eric Cordingly in Changi, Singapore

Converting a Mosque into a Church

The most fascinating fact I found from the extracts is how the POWs in Singapore built the church in one day, in their first Saturday of captivity at Changi Prison. The POW chapel, famously known as St. George’s, used to be a Mosque for the Indian troops who once lived in that area. The symbol of hope was a beautiful brass cross made by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden, who later died of Beri-Beri in 1945, during his sea voyage home from Japan and was buried at sea.

Eric Cordingly recalled that on the day after his imprisonment, he discovered next to their billet a delightful large white building, almost hidden by flowering shrubs and trees. He followed the steps to a minaret upon which was a dome, and it was surmounted by the familiar Star and Crescent. It was a Mosque.

Two months after their captivity, Padre Cordingly had a visitor – the Moslem priest whose Mosque they were then using. The Moslem priest came to collect his prayer books, which Padre Cordingly had kept safe for him. The Moslem priest was the most open-minded. He was glad that the building was being used for the worship of God.

I wonder, would St. George chapel be the only Mosque in the world ever used by the Church of England?

Padre Eric Cordingly at St. George's Chapel,  Changi, Singapore, 1942. St. George's Cross by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

Padre Eric Cordingly at St. George’s Chapel, Changi, Singapore, 1942. St. George’s Cross by Staff Sergeant Harry Stogden (Image credit: Bernard Stogden)

The overcrowded church in Changi POW camp

Padre Cordingly recalled one church evening service in March 1942. The Church was packed for Evensong. It was impossible to get a seat even half an hour before the service.

“It is an amusing sight to watch men approaching from all directions carrying chairs of all sorts and descriptions, camp chairs, wicker chairs, easy chairs, home-made-chairs.”

By Padre Eric Cordingly, from Down to Bedrock: The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East Prisoner of War Chaplain 1942 – 1945

The Church that the men made themselves became their sanctuary.

Padre Eric Cordingly: an army chaplain. (via Church Times)

Padre Eric Cordingly: an army chaplian. (via Church Times)

“Six graves are always ready for use.”

Padre Cordingly often conducted five or six funerals a week. The men had survived the marches through the dense jungles in the wilderness before, however, at the war camps, they mostly died from dysentery, a preventable disease. You could sense Padre Cordingly’s deep sadness. At Changi, six graves were always ready for use.

“Six graves are always ready for use, and a funeral takes place the same day as the death. It sometimes happens that a person you have spoken to is buried by you a day or so later. There is real meaning in those words from the Burial Service “in the midst of life we are in death”.

“The Cemetery is carefully planned and in its simple dignity looks quite beautiful, set out with the grassed banks, flower beds, hedges and shrubs and gravelled paths. A few weeks ago this same area had been a rough jungle undergrowth. In straight lines there are standing 400 wooden crosses, as these increase week by week the grim thought comes into one’s mind that many of these crosses cover the mortal remains of men reported safe after battle. Men who need not have died but for the facts and conditions of our captivity.”

By Padre Eric Cordingly, from Down to Bedrock: The Diary and Secret Notes of a Far East Prisoner of War Chaplain 1942 – 1945

From April 1943 to April 1944, as part of “F” Force, Padre Cordingly was sent with 7,000 prisoners by the Japanese to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway. Though he survived, 45% of the labour force died.

Referring to his trauma in Thailand, Padre Cordingly later wrote in the book Beyond Hatred that it was a year he would never wish to live through again. Eight chaplains were in this Force, and three were buried in Thailand.

The site where the St. George’s chapel used to be is now commemorated at the Changi Museum.

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10 thoughts on “Eric Cordingly – Diary of the Changi POW Chaplain in Singapore

  1. Behind the Story

    Under such terrible conditions, Father Cordingly could have lost hope. Instead, he organized a parish, led worship with his fellow prisoners, and kept a diary. What is this urge to write that some of us have?

    Reply
  2. 国樑 KL

    Janet,
    You have dedicated very good effort to recapture the long gone history.

    If I may add, in your previous article you wrote about Changi Murals. These murals are found in the converted St Luke Chapel. This POW camp site was originally an army camp for British Royal Artillery built for the purpose of fighting the Japanese in the “future”. The entire British Royal Artillery camp was designated as POW camp as soon as the Japanese occupied Singapore on 15 Feb 1942.

    15 Feb 1942 happened to be the first day of Chinese New Year. This was the darkest Chinese New Year in Singapore history. In Chinese, this day is termed as 一九四二壬午年正月初一日.

    St George chapel was converted from a mosque in the Indian Barrack. Indian Barrack was part of the Royal Artillery. Hence, loosely speaking, St George chapel and St Luke Chapel were housed within the same POW camp.

    The setup of St George chapel was almost identical with the rest of the many small chapels set up then. Today, a replica of such chapels can be seen in the Chapel section of Changi Museum. Harry Stogden’s cross is placed there. However, the actual St George chapel is no longer exist. Changi museum is located at Changi North Road and is opened to public. I have seen many Australian visitors.

    Similarly, a replica of St Luke chapel can be found in Changi Museum. However, the actual St Luke chapel site is preserved within the Singapore Arm Forces compound. The actual site is not opened to public.

    KL

    Reply
  3. Bernard Stogden

    I have visited Ghangi twice the second time was to take part in the opening of the new Changi Museum where I placed the Cross that my father had made on the altar. We were taken on a tour to se the Murals and I reconized a room which was call Roberts Hospital, a place that my father has recorded in his note book.

    Reply
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  9. Louise

    Hello Janet
    I’ve just come across your lovely website.
    I’m Padre Cordingly’s daughter Louise – I’d love to make contact with you.
    Louise Reynolds

    Reply

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